I make no secret of the fact that I have enormous admiration for Sir Terry Pratchett. It seems to me that he is among the most creative, insightful and goodhearted writers around today. This is most frequently demonstrated in his Discworld novels, especially ones like Hogfather, as I mentioned in my last post.
But Sir Terry’s work does not begin and end with Discworld, however. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of the most prolific writers alive today. One of his most recent releases is 2008’s Nation.
Nation occurs in a sort of alternate universe version of the Victorian or early Edwardian era (our best indicator is that Darwin has recently published The Origin of Species), although it is set principally in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean, which may or may not be the South Pacific, and more specifically the island known by its inhabitants as ‘the Nation.’
Mau is a youth on the verge of formally entering manhood. His ritual of solitude and self-sufficiency is nearly over and he is returning to the Nation to be received and celebrated by his people. Tragically, as he nears the island, a massive tsunami hits, devastating the Nation. Mau is still out on the sea in his canoe so the brunt of the wave passes him, but every one of his family and countrymen was waiting on the beach to receive him.
Mau is left with his entire world in ruins. Struck dumb by the horror, he consigns his people to sea, and questions his own identity. Who is he if not a member of the Nation? Does he have a soul if the ceremony of receiving an adult soul is now impossible? Why did the Nation’s gods bring this about? Indeed, that question becomes ever more pressing, especially since the spirits of the ancestors are constantly bellowing at him inside his head to perform various rites and restore the order of the Nation – a strange command since there isn’t really a Nation left to restore.
That would probably be the end of Mau right there except that he has a companion, the ‘ghost girl’ who washed ashore in a giant canoe. In fact it’s the British ship Sweet Judy, cast ashore with one Ermintrude, a young lady of good breeding, and even better intellect, as the sole survivor. She introduces herself to Mau as ‘Daphne’ rather than admit to her real name. Nonetheless, the two form a friendship and help each other survive. Along with various storm-tossed survivors of the wave who wash up on their shore, they set out to build a life and a community, and set out on a strange quest to discover the secret origins of the gods of the Nation, and maybe find the answers Mau is striving for.
To say that I thought this book was superb would be a grand understatement. It has a very dry, grim humour in the story and in the dialogue, with no laugh-out-loud moments such as even the darkest Discworld novels provide. As a young adult novel, it also tones down its prose so that it doesn’t suffer from the occasional impenetrability which is the one major flaw in Sir Terry’s writing.
Objectively speaking at least; I wonder whether Sir Terry was moved to write this book as a message to the world. Since his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease his writing has taken on a tone of closing things up. Snuff for one had a sense of ‘all done’ to it.
The themes of Nation are powerful ones. The interaction between grief and hope stand out clearest to me; Mau and Daphne are both coping with terrible losses. The phenomenon Joss Whedon calls ‘created family’ is much in evidence, which is one of my favourite literary devices.
Daphne and Mau are totally equals in the story, despite the gulf between them. Sir Terry is not one to make a damsel in distress nor a delicate flower among savages. Indeed, Daphne’s whole self-image is not being a delicate society lady. And the real kicker, if I may spoil a bit, they both live happily ever after but NOT as a couple! A typical but profound Pratchett ploy.
Probably the main trunk of the book’s themes is one of knowledge versus belief. Mau, because of his circumstances, and Daphne, by her very nature, are questioners. Mau is pitted against a priest of his people who represents the desperate fear and doubt that drives belief. The epilogue is a heartwarming reflection on the history of science, citing such names as Darwin, Einstein, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.
While Pratchett is a self-described non-believer, he is not an outspoken polemicist against belief like the aforementioned Prof. Dawkins. Such is my understanding that he regards understanding the universe as a spiritual pursuit in itself, and gods as a bit more of a human psychological process. In a way, Mau’s loss of faith is a powerful innocence to experience journey, which rather reminds me of the Golden Compass. This might sit ill with some, in a world where religion and humanism are seen by many as squaring up for a showdown. Having said that, the experience of the book is heartwarming (and –rending) enough and so…decent, that I recommend it to anyone happily.
Carry on, Sir Terry.